Franklin Templeton CEO: We ‘stand by’ firing of viral ex-employee Amy Cooper

Franklin Templeton CEO Jenny Johnson in a recent interview said management at the investment firm stands by its decision last year to fire Amy Cooper, a former employee who went viral after a video captured her calling the police about a Black birdwatcher who had asked her to put her dog on a leash.

The incident, which took place last May in Manhattan's Central Park, made national headlines and prompted widespread accusations of racism toward Cooper. Cooper has rejected the characterization, instead filing a lawsuit in May against Franklin Templeton claiming it fired her without doing a proper investigation and inaccurately portrayed her as a racist.

Johnson, whose firm manages more than $1.5 trillion in assets and employs more than 11,000 people worldwide, said executives in general should support employees even when a response on social media makes it "difficult" to bring a judgment on the merits of a given situation. But the incident involving Cooper warranted termination on the basis of the former employee's conduct alone, Johnson said.

"I've been in a couple of situations where social media got it wrong. And it's difficult as a CEO, and as a firm, when social media doesn't have it right and you need to stand by people," Johnson says.

"In the case of that situation [of Amy Cooper], we stand by our decision," she adds. "We felt and we feel confident in the due diligence we did in the end — the process to make our evaluations."

Christian Cooper, a writer and frequent birdwatcher, on May 25, 2020 came across Amy Cooper (no relation) in the park and asked her to abide by a rule that requires dog owners to keep their pets on a leash, according to an account of the incident in The New York Times. Christian Cooper used his phone to record Amy Cooper as she declined to put her dog on a leash and instead called the police. 

Soon after the video was posted online, Franklin Templeton tweeted a statement decrying racism and saying the company had suspended Amy Cooper while it looked into the incident. The following day, the company tweeted that it had fired Cooper. Amy Cooper gained the moniker online as the "Central Park Karen," shorthand for an entitled white woman.

The incident occurred just a few hours before the police murder of George Floyd, which set off a wave off Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. and highlighted the dire consequences of calling the police on Black people in America.

The lawsuit filed by Cooper alleges that the company did not undertake a legitimate investigation prior to her termination, and that the decision to fire her was itself discriminatory. 

"Franklin Templeton’s alleged investigation and results provided legitimacy to the 'Karen' story, and appeared to provide justification for those who sought the destruction of the Plaintiff’s life," the lawsuit claims.

In a statement after the filing of the lawsuit, Franklin Templeton said it “responded appropriately” by firing Cooper and vowed to "defend against these baseless claims," the Washington Post reported.

In October, the Manhattan district attorney charged Amy Cooper with false reporting of a 911 emergency but later dropped the claim after Cooper went through a counseling program.

Johnson, the granddaughter of Franklin Templeton founder Rupert Johnson, began working in the mailroom at the investment fund over holidays at age 14. After a stint at Drexel Burnham, she joined Franklin Templeton in the late '80s, serving in various executive roles before she became CEO.

Speaking to Yahoo Finance, Johnson said decisions about employees should be divorced from opinions expressed on social media. 

"I think that the world has gotten to the point where social media comes to very quick decisions without all the facts," she says. "That gets hard for companies."

"I think the only way that I would feel good or any of my leadership team feels good is we try to make those decisions based on what we believe are being fair or steady to our values," she says. "Though sometimes it means taking the heat in the short run."

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